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Commentary & Opinion

Blair Horner: The Cuomo Administration Is Criticized For Its Secrecy

The Cuomo Administration’s preference for secrecy – even at the expense of the public’s right to know – was criticized in a report by an independent fiscal watchdog.  The report examined the Administration’s plan to divert over a half billion dollars from New York City’s water quality program to construction of the new Tappen Zee Bridge.  The Tappen Zee Bridge links Rockland and Westchester counties in the southern Hudson Valley.  Construction of the new bridge could cost $4 billion.

The report issued by the New York State Authorities Budget Office found that the Administration had violated the state’s open meeting law and that the agency charged with overseeing the arrangement has failed to sufficiently scrutinize the deal.   Moreover, the report found that the Administration ignored complaints about the deal from federal officials.

The new Tappen Zee Bridge is currently under construction alongside the current bridge.  If you drive south on the New York State Thruway you will see barges hammering pilings into the seabed of the Hudson River.

Yet, there is no financial plan for how construction of the new bridge will be paid for.  In part to offset those costs and to continue its stealth financing for the new bridge, the Cuomo Administration announced in June that over $500 million in water treatment money would be loaned to the building of the new bridge. The loan would come from the state’s Environmental Facilities Corporation – an entity monitored by the Authorities Budget Office (ABO).

The Environmental Facilities Corporation (EFC) is a state financing agency.  Its mission is “to provide low-cost capital and expert technical assistance for environmental projects.”  Three state agency heads appointed by the governor plus four more nominated by the governor with the approval of the state Senate run the EFC, meaning that the governor’s office effectively runs the agency.

Environmental and government watchdog groups were outraged that a decision was made not only to steer money from a water treatment fund to help offset the construction of a bridge, but that the decision occurred outside of the normal public review process.  The groups filed a complaint with the ABO arguing that the board of the EFC had failed in its public responsibilities.

The ABO was created in 2009 to monitor state authorities to ensure that they operated appropriately and fiscally responsibly.

In November, the ABO issued its report and found that Cuomo Administration did not sufficiently operate openly.  While the governor had announced in June 16th that the $500 million would be diverted from the water protection fund to the bridge, the ABO found:  “the board did not meet to discuss or review details of the N.Y.S.T.A. bridge project or the application prior to convening a meeting on June 26, 2014, to authorize” the loan.”

In other words, the board merely rubber-stamped the Administration’s plan.

The ABO also found that the EFC board did not comply with Open Meetings Law requirements.

The US Environmental Protection Agency did reject most of the loan request since it was going to be used for basic construction rather than cleaning water or helping the environment.  The Cuomo Administration regarded the loan as a crucial source of money for a project shepherded by the New York State Thruway Authority that is expected to cost $3.9 billion.

A spokesman for the EFC said that the report was “filled with inaccuracies and omissions.”

The ABO report highlights one of the serious weaknesses of the Cuomo Administration: its overreliance on secrecy in making its decisions.  In this case, the secrecy is seemingly part of an overall effort to hide from the public – the people who will end up paying for it – the cost of the new bridge.  And the preference for secrecy, in this case, led to violations of state law.

But the biggest lesson from this episode is the importance of independent oversight.  In this case, the staff of the ABO was appointed by a previous Administration and was willing to investigate a legitimate complaint without fear of reprisal.

It is a lesson that all New Yorkers should support.  Albany needs more watchdogs that are independent.

 

Blair Horner is the Legislative Director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.

 

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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